Alex Gray (D/P/I, Deep Magic, Sun Araw Band): Interview
“It’s more-or-less joking with the listener at that point, giving them a ‘control,’ so I can test their patience with other sounds.”
Charming ears and hearts across the world/internet, Alex Gray has become a household name in quite a few of our dens. From Deep Magic, D/P/I (DJ Purple Image), his older moniker Heat Wave, and his Chance Images imprint, to his previous label Deep Tapes, his ethereal existence in Dreamcolour, his travels with the Sun Araw Band, and his newest Duppy endeavor GENESIS HULL, Gray continues to advance his life within music. What we heard as listeners last year — Fresh Roses, Espresso Digital, SHE WAS NO TAME THING, JEANETTE, Reflections Of Most Forgotten Love, and a split cassette with Pimmon — were merely dots on the timeline of Gray’s evolving existence. It’s pure musical metamorphosis.
Toward the end of 2013, I had the opportunity to chat at the great Gray. Mostly about adventuring, rabbit holes, and friendships. Read on.
How long have you been home since touring in the Sun Araw Band?
What’s your source of transportation at home and/or while on tour?
My most typical source of transportation by foot, but for long trips I take the train or bus. Public transportation is always a gamble… Cameron and I were traveling through Moscow on a sleep train, we had JUST loaded our equipment, we’re settling down, I peep my head out the door and there are flames everywhere. A fire had exploded out of some kind of furnace in the hallway of the train… I yell at Cameron & the promoter, “Grab the shit! The train is on fire!” We grip the stuff, run off the train, we’re standing on the track, 10 minutes pass by, and then we realize we’re alone. The guards had put the fire out, and everyone was back on the train. So the promoter and us ran down the tracks with all our equipment, trying to get into a door on a different car, and the guards weren’t letting us on. Finally, the promoter just pushed us on a random section; we pushed the guard aside, ran to a cabin, and quickly locked the door. All we had were our passports. Totally frantic.
Another rarity both in transportation and general experience was also in Moscow, on the way to the show, pushed the button in the elevator, and it gets stuck. Inside: Russian nurse, a cat who had just bought McDonald’s, a bottle of vodka and a bottle of pickles, Cam, Alisa (booker/pal) and me, including all of our equipment. For the first hour, the nurse was just filling out paperwork, no sign of help. The dude looks at us and says, “Do you want some of ‘your country?’” motioning the McDonald’s towards us.
Told him, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Do you want vodka?”
“You eat a pickle. Then you shoot the vodka.”
After another hour (maybe more, maybe less), they get it working, and we’re extremely late to sound check.
Sun Araw band
Wild rides! What’s that reeded instrument you’ve been flirtin’ with on tour?
I had a saxophone available to me since 2007/2008/something-like-that; a nice alto. My friend Alexa’s mom owned a barn and we found it in there. She told us to keep it; the place was filled with stuff nobody wanted. After I had moved, I wasn’t around to use that sax anymore, so I found myself looking around on the internet and couldn’t afford a real sax. I still wanted a reeded instrument and ended up finding some hippie Australian cat that created his own bamboo saxophones. I bought one, and used it intermittently, until Cameron and I wanted to incorporate saxophone into the live Sun Araw sets, so after putting a mic up in it a few times, I started running it through some fuzz, through a tube amp; it worked really well with the sounds. We’re building a new live setup right now; it’s great to keep the instrumentation changing.
When/how did you and Cameron meet?
Cameron and I met in January 2009 in Los Angeles. Dreamcolour played a triple-bill show with Pocahaunted and Sun Araw at The Smell. We dug each others’ sets, and kept in touch via email after that show. In 2010, we started talking more, sending each other YouTube links of shit we were into, began realizing we had a lot in common aesthetically and musically. At this time, he was touring with a different cat, and things weren’t working as smoothly as he wanted, so we began to talk about me moving to L.A. to play/tour with him. It just so happened that my friend Sean McCann had a room open in LA, so I moved in immediately, and Cam and I started jamming/getting ideas for a live setup.
How big of an influence is Sean McCann on your work, especially living with him in L.A.?
McCann has been a huge musical influence in my life. He’s a good friend of mine. I usually insist on working with Sean for final masters of Deep Magic releases. He really helps sculpt out the completed sound. I wouldn’t say that my works “relate” to Sean’s in a musical sense, but I do think of Sean as a peer of mine, and his attitude/approach toward sounds inspires me.
I’ll have eight or 10 or 15 micro-compositions based on a sample, and handle each of those things as an uncompressed piece to the overall puzzle; basically each minute or two that passes is built out of a five-minute track that has been chopped and manipulated.
Outside of L.A., where would you say you’ve felt MOST influenced creatively?
Mexico City is the only place I’ve ever considered living, outside of L.A. I’ve met a lot of really great people and have felt good energy down there. I feel really blessed to have met so many beautiful and talented people there.
Man, you’re meeting EVERYONE. How’d all this D/P/I collaborative work happen with Leland of Ahnnu?
We started talking a lot fairly recently, maybe in the past six months; chattin’ online or running into each other getting tacos; shootin’ the shit drunk after a show. He asked me, “What’s your thoughts on that new Drake record (TMT Review)?” And I’d been talking about it/listening to it a lot recently, thinking it was a highly, highly creative hip-hop album, so he continued, “Yo, we should totally fuck up the new Drake record.” He set up a Dropbox the next day and was sending me chops, little fragments and loops, and I flipped ‘em, sent them back his way, I’d send him a little loop; and it just went on like that until it was finished!
Ahh, yeah, but funny thing about all this: I can barely remember how I got in contact with him. My final answer is we got in contact through Matthewdavid. But somebody also told me about that label too; like, Leland’s pro habitat (TMT Review). Or, I heard about him while working with PooBah. Something along those lines.
I imagine your general digital organization is super deep. With D/P/I, considering your sample-driven bombastic aesthetic, how have you been organizing this process on your computer?
Usually, it starts with fragments of individual loops/samples I’ve worked with. Like, I’ll have eight or 10 or 15 micro-compositions based on a sample, and handle each of those things as an uncompressed piece to the overall puzzle; basically each minute or two that passes is built out of a five-minute track that has been chopped and manipulated. At the end, there is one file and all the said fragments are composed.
I’m usually totally obsessed with the vocal/musical samples that I’m flipping in my work. I get a lot of samples/ideas from touring and meeting people, hanging out, drinking, smoking, and sharing our collections on YouTube. Like, Fresh Roses is definitely in-part based on/inspired by my buddy Barnaby, a deep music cat, who’s into all this rare and private-pressed folk/psych stuff. He got me totally hooked on old country music. I come with some YouTube fire too, but I love learning about new music/medias from friends.
And where along those lines did you find Elliott Hulse?
I took over my parents’ graphic design storefront (Channel Islands Design) for a little bit in my home town while they took a well-needed vacation. I sat in this office working 9-to-5 — sometimes it was slammed and other times there’d just be crickets in the background, so when they were chirping, I’d log onto the net and find some weird rabbit holes on YouTube, looking up weird shit, and ended up finding “How to Cure Depression,” or something like that. From there, it became a battle of that video being deleted and uploaded and deleted again, then reuploaded, and then this last time it was uploaded, it had this really crazy name, like “Biocentric…[?] Balancing Act.” Then, when it was permanent, so I downloaded it and, naturally, sent it to the homies… “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS!?”
I just got tired of dicking with tapes. Maintaining the tape zone was just getting to be too much. And LPs are just too big of a process. And expensive. And as I was saying, I want to be swift on my output. Just get it off my computer and to the people that want to hear it.
Well, we were hanging out with those Pure X dudes, who are Austin-based. We were all bored the day before playing at the Tiny Mix Tapes gig, after having played dominoes all night, so when we woke up, they’re were like, “Let’s go shoot some shotguns.” They had guns, we picked up ammo, and just went to the shooting range. It was great. I love hanging with those dudes… Our main men in Texas, for sure… SHOUT OUT!
Yo, and they grossly underrated dudes! As well yourself in the “mainstream” or even “underground” magz and sites. However, in what stretch of imagination could you picture a scenario where D/P/I would be played consciously at a Wal-Mart or TJ Maxx?
This is a funny question. The only way I could figure THAT happening is if I sample something I blatantly stole that was an extremely sugary, poppy, dance-y loop that I just left on its own, barely effected, and put it out as a single… I highly doubt this eventuality.
The funny thing about it, some of my tracks are just an R&B sample plus one other sound. And D/P/I releases can go that way, it seems. It’s more-or-less joking with the listener at that point, giving them a “control,” so I can test their patience with other sounds. Like, a track like “TRUST” is meant to be a catalyst for a subsequent part that’s way weirder. But if you were to isolate something I manipulated, it could resemble a song that people generally could stand to listen to… Could be fit for an elevator.
All around, it seems like a lot of your D/P/I process is pretty euphoric and listener exasperation. What’s been the most trying time personally making music as D/P/I? Or even Deep Magic?
Probably making the final transitions on anything: between “this is the final idea” and “this is DONE.” Most of the people I respect in music, work fairly quickly, like my pals that I’m really into: Ged, Matthewdavid, Cameron — all these people work pretty swiftly and understand the importance of knowing when it’s FINISHED.
Has collaborating been easier in FINISHing projects since there are two minds vying for completion?
Uhhhhh, no. No. It’s funny you ask that. I’ve been kinda thinking about that, actually. It’s definitely not. I mean, for some people, maybe it is. For me, personally, working on my own is really nice because I have the say on when it’s truly DONE. THEN, I come up with a schedule, and complete the release’s production.
But with collaborating, it’s more complicated… “I hope they like this…” first of all… haha. Then, it’s the hope that it fits with the other person’s style, since sometimes I haven’t heard everything they’ve done. I’d like to meet in the middle with a collaborator. Even talking about it can be really difficult. Thankfully, with Leland it’s mellow, there’s a nice fluidity there.
How’s the work been with bessedof?
Actually, I think what we have forming is more of a split. Most of my work is done, just waiting on the finishing touches from him. We’ve been talking about it for about two-and-a-half years now, so it’s cool we’re finally getting to it. His recent split with Dil Withers sparked the fire for me to get some tracks to him. Another cat I really like collaborating with.
Who do you see yourself collaborating with in 2014?
Cameron and I have a few things happening that I’m really excited about. There’s a project we’re doing with L.A.’s Mitchell Brown, owner of Melon Expander. He’s an amazing guy, totally dedicated. He does this great reel-to-reel, tape manipulation-type stuff… Cam on guitar, me on laptop, and then Mitchell running it all through the reel-to-reel tape, and a filter bank… We’re also completely re-doing the live Sun Araw set, all new sounds & machines… Very excited about all of it.
I’m usually totally obsessed with the vocal/musical samples that I’m flipping in my work. I get a lot of samples/ideas from touring and meeting people, hanging out, drinking, smoking, and sharing our collections on YouTube.
As a label owner, you’re straight up releasing CDs on Chance Images, rather than cassettes, as you had with your previous label Deep Tapes. Why the change?
I just got tired of dicking with tapes. Maintaining the tape zone was just getting to be too much.
And LPs are just too big of a process. And expensive. And as I was saying, I want to be swift on my output. Just get it off my computer and to the people that want to hear it. Imagine if Espresso Digital were just sitting somewhere waiting to be pressed. Like, that shit needed to be out when it came out. So that’s why CDs are perfect. They’re economical, cheap to make, and cheap to ship. There’s lots of places outside of America that support CDs. Japan is synonymous with weird CDs to me.
Do you ever see yourself releasing some non-music type stuff on CDs next year from people outside of the D/P/I collaboration realm?
For now, it’s not a huge priority. I don’t want to put out a bunch of releases by others immediately, or in a short amount of time. Also, I don’t really like putting out music by people I don’t personally know.
Does this mentality stem from prior experience on other labels?
Well, when I was putting stuff out in the Deep Tapes zone, I would get really excited about a dude in town, we’d play a show together. I’d hear them and think, “Whoa, dude, you’re fucking awesome, let’s put something out,” if they were into it, we would put something out! I’d just like to keep it that way in the future.
So your intentions are focusing solely on releasing YOUR music. However, would you ever consider putting your music out on a separate label?
I am open to anything. I do really like self-releasing D/P/I stuff at the moment. Leaving Records is doing all my digital distribution, and I’ve also finished a D/P/I album for that label [out February 4]. I’m very open to working with anyone who I connect with.
Did you seek out Preservation to release the latest Deep Magic LP?
We had been talking about a release in 2010. Somehow, through a warping of space and time, Andrew, the label owner, got one of my tapes and offered to put something out. At the time, I had a pretty steady girlfriend, an apartment, was doing lots of work and shit. It wasn’t until I moved back to Southern California heartbroken, that I created an album really quickly for him, which he was referred to as “perfect.” Since then, I did a split cassette with Pimmon, and then the Reflections of Most Forgotten Love album.
How do you see the musically split difference between Deep Magic and D/P/I?
Initially, when I think about Deep Magic, or try to explain it, I always go back to Dreamcolour with Rob Magill. Deep Magic came out of Dreamcolour as a solo endeavor. It’s always been a really emotional project for me. When I’m finished with a Deep Magic release, it’s hard for me to go back and have a listen to it. They are time capsules in a weird way. I never sample anything for Deep Magic, I record the instruments myself.
D/P/I is mostly sampling. Deep Magic stuff will take me several months to a year to make, but D/P/I stuff directly correlates to what I’m into at the moment. It’s everything that makes me laugh or cry.
How about Dreamcolour?
Well, the configuration still exists ‘cause Rob Magill and I continue make music together, and a lot of the same people are down with us, and we still all like to play together. We’re all still bros, lol. I wouldn’t call it dead. Redundant Orchestra Ensemble is our newest project together.
So, I see where you at; where you coming from; where you going. Last question: if this interview lands you title as owner of Sony Corporation of America, what is your first plan of action?
I dunno, man. Disappear.